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How we test laptops

By Michael Passingham

Get the lowdown on how our laptop tests are among the most rigorous you’ll find on the web.

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Our Test Labs compare features and prices on a range of products. Try Which? to unlock our reviews. You'll instantly be able to compare our test scores, so you can make sure you don't get stuck with a Don't Buy.

We test more than 100 laptops in our specialist lab every year, but what goes on behind those walls and how is the score for each product generated? 

Jump straight to:

Why our laptop tests are different

Almost all free-to-access websites review laptops using an individual tester and generate scores based on that individual’s preferences. Free sites also typically get laptops free of charge directly from manufacturers or their PR representatives.

As well as using multiple testers in a lab-based scenario, the Which? overall percentage score is calculated purely on the measurements and ratings supplied by the lab, meaning there is no room for unconscious bias when giving an overall rating. We also buy every single device we test, and do not accept free samples for any of our full lab tests.

What are Which? Best Buys and Don’t Buys?

Best Buys are given to laptops that impress the most in our tests. As of July 2019, a laptop that scores over 70% is a Best Buy and comes with a firm overall recommendation, although you should still read our reviews to check for any weaknesses that might impact your buying decision. Meanwhile, laptops that score under 45% are Don’t Buys.

  • Best Buy laptops typically tick the most important boxes – long lasting battery life, an impressively sharp and clear display, and fast operation on a device that's comfortable and easy to use.
  • Don't Buy laptops fall down in important areas – they won't last long without needing a recharge, can be awkward and frustrating to operate and painfully slow.

How is the Which? score calculated?

The Which? overall score is a percentage. This score only takes into account the results of our tests and ignores price completely. This means that all laptops are tested on exactly the same scale, so you can compare any laptop at any price and know how it measures up against its rivals in key areas. All laptops are tested in the same way, regardless of the manufacturers’ claims.

Weightings and star ratings

A Which? overall score is made up of dozens of individual tests and checks, from key factors such as ease of use, battery life and performance to sound quality and portability. Behind each of those ratings could be more than 20 individual tests and checks. This means that the most important things – such as how good a laptop’s keyboard is, will more greatly impact a laptop’s score than whether or not the webcam has a flash.

To keep things simple, the most important scores are shown as star ratings out of five on each laptop’s Test Results page as an easy-to-compare list of strengths and weaknesses, so you can quickly work out whether a laptop is right for you.

Small (14-inch and under) and large (greater than 14 inches) laptops are tested in the same way, but their scores are calculated differently to keep things fair. For example, you can’t expect a large laptop to also be light, so we minimise the impact this has on its overall score.

How the overall laptop test score is calculated

Our key testing criteria

Below are the key testing categories and how we evaluate each one:

 Laptop comfort and ease of use

Key question: Does this laptop have any annoying quirks when used long-term?

This portion of the lab test is the one that’s most heavily based on our lab technicians' years of laptop testing experience. Here, they evaluate the responsiveness and comfort of the laptop’s touchpad and keyboard, checking for any annoying or unusual behaviour that could slow you down in your everyday work.

They also look at the various ports and connectors to see if they’re well-labelled and easy to plug into, and check for comfort when using the laptop on a desk and on a lap. Here we also look at how loud a laptop’s cooling fans get when working on strenuous tasks.

Ease of use makes up 30% of the score for a laptop over 14 inches, and 25% for those under 14 inches.

 Laptop speed and performance

Key questions: How fast is this laptop for everyday tasks, how good are its wi-fi, USB ports and gaming ability?

This is the most numbers-heavy part of our testing and is based on various advanced software benchmarks that give each computer identical tasks to perform. These benchmarks provide a score on a large number of tasks, including the speed of the laptop when browsing the web, editing photos, editing documents and spreadsheets, opening programs and editing videos. 

The lab also performs manual checks to see how the computers handle in real-world use, to ensure the benchmark results match up to reality.

For each performance star rating on a laptop’s Test Results page, a score of three stars denotes acceptable performance for the task at hand.

For non-Windows 10 laptops, we perform other benchmark tests to ensure Chromebooks and MacBooks are up to scratch before giving them a score.

Elsewhere, the lab performs four separate tests to check the speed of the built-in wi-fi hardware, and they also conduct two USB speed tests.

Speed makes up 27.5% of the score for a laptop over 14 inches, and 20% for those under 14 inches.

 Laptop screen quality and sound

Key questions: Is this laptop’s screen easy to read, does it display pictures clearly with vibrant colours, and can you enjoy music and films using the built-in speakers?

Our lab uses a calibrated piece of screen analysis equipment called a colorimeter to measure how the screen performs. This device measures the screen’s ability to display accurate colours along with contrast, brightness and darkness.

This measurement data is backed up with our lab experts’ eyes. They evaluate how clear the screen is, how easy text is to read, how severe reflections are and whether the screen becomes impossible to read if you view it at an off-centre angle.

The combination of these quantitative and qualitative tests makes up the screen’s overall score.

A laptop’s sound quality is assessed by a trained audio expert. Various types of audio are played on each model, including pure speech, music and a movie with sound effects, dialogue and music. Each performance is rated out of five by the lab.

In addition, the lab checks how well the laptop’s sound is delivered via the headphone jack to a pair of studio-grade headphones. This can differ significantly between laptops.

Screen and sound makes up 22.5% of the score for a laptop over 14 inches, and 15% for those under 14 inches

 Laptop battery life

Key question: How long can you use this laptop away from the mains?

This test is one of the trickiest to get right, as proven by our investigation into how laptop brands make near-impossible claims about battery life.

Here, we run at least three battery tests on each laptop, including playing a looped high-definition video stored on the internal hard drive until the battery runs out, and browsing the web while connected to the internet over a wi-fi connection. For the web browsing test, we run it at least twice to ensure consistency, and a third time if the first and second tests vary by more than 10%. We report the average of both tests in each laptop review.

Battery makes up 10% of the score for a laptop over 14 inches and 20% for those under 14 inches.

 Laptop portability

Key question: Will this laptop slide easily into a bag to be carried around all day without weighing you down?

Here, the lab performs accurate measurements on all aspects of the laptop. We ignore any manufacturer claims, as we’ve often found that these are very wide of the mark. We measure both the laptop and its charger on highly accurate scales, and use similarly accurate measurements to check the laptop’s dimensions and also measure how far the screen tilts when it’s opened fully.

Portability makes up 5% of the score for a laptop over 14 inches, and 15% for those under 14 inches.  

 Laptop key features

Key question: Does this laptop have the features you’d expect, and are there any extra bells and whistles?

This score is a checklist of essential and useful specifications and ports found on the laptop. This includes the amount of storage space, amount of short-term memory (Ram) and the number of processor cores. We also look at the number of USB, HDMI and ethernet sockets and whether there’s a DVD drive.

Features make up 5% of the score for all laptops.

Pick the perfect laptop with Which? reviews

As you can see from the graph below, there is a wide variety in the scores of laptops in the same price bracket. More expensive laptops tend to perform better, as you might expect, but we've found cheaper models that score higher than those that are twice the price.

Browse all our laptop reviews to find your perfect model.
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